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Published in 2002, Teaching Tolerance Magazine

Gardening and Children
A Healing Combination

by Patricia Fry

Eight year old Renaldo guides his wheelchair over the planks between two rows of tomato plants. He selects just the right fruit and pops it into his mouth. With a juicy grin, he exclaims, "I grew this! I grew it, and it's good!"

What is it about gardening that nourishes special needs children and helps them to flourish in spite of their challenges? According to Maria Gabaldo, President of the American Horticultural Therapy Association in Gaithersberg, MD, "It gives them the opportunity to nurture and allows them a measure of control. When they become a responsible party, their self-esteem really blossoms."

Although, there are no major scientific studies to substantiate the benefits of therapeutic gardening for special needs children, countless facilities are incorporating gardening into their therapy programs with impressive results.

Maureen Oswald is the Senior Therapeutic Recreation Specialist at the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville, VA. Physical therapy is one way they use their gardens. Oswald explains, "When kids find that they're doing something functional ? something that makes sense to the child, they're more motivated to complete the task. When a patient transplants a plant, they have something to show for their therapy that day rather than just stretching their fingers."

According to Oswald, "We've found that every child can benefit from the horticulture program in one way or another." Because most of the patients at Kluge have suffered a traumatic injury and stay anywhere from a week to 18 months, therapists get to know them pretty well.

"Some of our children have behavior problems," says Oswald. "Many times we find that the children were in the accident because of their recklessness or their inattention to safety. Maybe they had a learning disability prior to the injury and that's compounded. We do see a difference with some of the more hyper active and aggressive children out in the garden.

"In a staff meeting, for example, we may discuss Johnny and his inability to pay attention. The horticulture therapist might say that she doesn't see any of our complaints about his behavior in the garden. He stays interested and on task for two hours at a time. When the other team members hear that, they may start having sessions with the patient in the garden."

Oswald continues, "For some patients, going outside is too much, so we may bring plants inside to them. We'll pack plants on the lap of a child who is a quadriplegic and say, ?All right, Johnny, you know some of the children can't come out of their rooms, let's go give these plant to them and cheer them up.'"

Kathleen Airhart teaches environmental sciences and horticulture at Cookeville High School in Tennessee and often works with students with behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

"Many of these students come to science planning not to understand because that's been their experience," says Airhart. "But, I have a little greenhouse at the school where we do science experiments and grow plants for profit. I have a few kids who are so excited about this that they offer their free time to help take care of the greenhouse."

And the greenhouse seems to be taking care of them, too. One boy, in particular, had been dismissed from his classes for continual episodes of fighting. He had spent the past two years in what they call a behavior class, coming out only for Airhart's science program and to work in the greenhouse. "He's moving out of the behavior class next year," reports Airhart. "He'll be in the agriculture program and continue working in the greenhouse." Airhart is so pleased with the transformation of some of her students that she's adding a job training component to the greenhouse program.

In Virginia, the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, the Fourth Judicial District Court Service Unit and the city of Norfolk have linked to provide vocational training for at-risk students.

According to Lillian Eastman, volunteer manager for the gardens, these students are at least two years behind in school and they've had minor brushes with the law. Students attend classes, but the crux of this program is the time they spend working side-by-side with the probation officer and child counselors in the 155 acre botanical gardens.

Eastman sees the students come into the program like a lion and go out like a lamb. She says, "We do a pretest and a posttest and usually see an attitude change. Some of the kids even notice the changes themselves. Two girls, having completed the pilot program, looked at their pretest and commented about how "derogatory" they were on their first test."

What makes the difference? Eastman says, "Nature is a calming and non-threatening environment. The young people are working and they're accomplishing something and this raises their self-esteem."

Gardens, for healing young hearts, bodies and minds? "Why not?" says Gabaldo. "When a child cares for a plant, they experience, maybe for the first time, what it feels like to see the consequences of their attention to a plant. Hopefully, then, they'll understand how that can translate to other areas of their life."

For more information, contact:

American Horticultural Therapy Association
362A Christopher Avenue
Gaithersburg, MD 20879


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